Last week I attended a panel discussion called: “I remember AU When… The Age of Protest.” The panelists were three graduates of American University from the 1960s and ’70s. After eating Swedish meatballs, checking out the slide show, and listening to The Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones,” they gave a somewhat interesting presentation on the political activism at our school when they were students. Though they heavily romanticized the era as a time of freedom and open dialogue, the panelists wisely warned against doing exactly that.

When it came to Q&A time, the first question was about the “apathetic and self-interested protests” he has witnessed on campus, including those over shower heads, limited housekeeping for a week, and the lack of understanding regarding the Karl Rove protest last week. (As Buffalo Springfield sang in 1966, “A thousand people in the street / Singing songs and carrying signs / Mostly saying, ‘hooray for our side’ ”). The question-asker wanted to know why students had lost interest in social justice.

Carl Cook, an academic adviser in the School of Public Affairs was the first panelist to respond. He graduated from AU in 1963 and worked here during the most heated moments, including during the often-recalled protest on Ward Circle of the Kent State Killings in 1970.

He replied, “Part of it is you are different from the students here. You have your cell phones, your iPods, your Blackberries… technology has overwhelmed us to a point where you are not able to overcome it… people had their eyes open [in the ’60s]… Kids then had different pressures then and they were not overwhelming. People looked around; they weren’t overwhelmed by downloads.”

His point resonated with me. I’ve been thinking about the impacts of modern information technology quite a bit recently. Just last week I had someone I very much respect tell me that she thinks the disinterest of people my age stems from the deluge of information we are subjected to–often from our very own Internet. Google, cell phones, and portable music always at hand, we never have a moment for quiet self-reflection, let alone reflection on global issues.

Our interim president, Neil Kerwin (AU Class of ’71), chimed in to answer. He argued that when he was in college, people were seeing images from the Vietnam War for the first time: “the war was brought into our living rooms.” The violence at home was also especially motivating: Kent State, the assassinations of Dr. King and John Kennedy (and I might add Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy to that list, as well as the violence against protesters during the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam). His point was that all this stuff was “literally brand new” to the young people of his generation. “That was 40 years ago. [Now] it’s exceedingly difficult to get excited because we’ve seen these images so often… They’re a part of your life. Spontaneous outrage was more likely to occur with these type of cathartic events.”

These theories make quite a bit of sense. I have to ask the question: if technology has both overstimulated and overwhelmed us to the point of apathy, can the Internet really help humanity as a whole?

In my second post, I wrote: “Of course, as we know, not all knowledge is good. It is not necessary or desirable to plug everyone in. Many have argued that the Internet is simply the new frontier of neocolonialism, especially since the ‘Net is dominated by English-language writing and Western worldviews. However, I argue that to deny communities the choice is to deny their basic agency and intelligence as human beings. Let people fill their minds with garbage if they want. Or give people a chance to change their futures.”

Yet I wonder. You know what they say about the best intentions. And if all of humanity is at stake here, and I believe it is, then maybe it is our duty to blow the tracks for this train. If there was ever an social ill to fight, it’s apathy. Passion is one of our defining characteristics as human beings. Are we losing it? Is passion in the “first world” now only reserved for hedonistic pleasures and consumer goods?

The protests of the sixties and seventies in this country were about challenging the status quo. Though much romanticized, hearing the comments of the other night made me wonder if we aren’t totally consumed by consumption. Maybe we need to step away from the technology, not work towards its global adoption. Mr. Cook, who I quoted earlier, said, “Students come to me telling me that they’re stressed out. I ask them, ‘Where’s your cell phone?’ And they tell me, ‘Right here!’…” He said, “I have a cell phone. But it’s at home right now.” Point taken. But technology is not evil. Technology has been around as long as the first stone tools. But perhaps information technology isn’t helping us. When I can have sixteen different web pages open simultaneously, flipping between them as fast as I can “absorb” the content, do I ever have a minute to stop and reflect on what I’ve just read? “The deck is more stacked against the individual than ever before,” said one of my anthropology professors this semester. If enforcing the status quo means subjugating the individual through mindless consumption (ironically subverting the romantic ideal which we value so much in Western culture), then IT has got to be part of the master scheme. Has it worked? Has this generation of “hooked-in” people in the United States become apathetic because of too much information?

All in all, I think American University are fairly active. In Fall 2005, student protests were numerous and loud after our president Benjamin Ladner spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of school money on caviar, yachting, and landscaping. Just yesterday, our sustainability club Eco-Sense rallied on the National Mall for global warming controls, and there was the Rove protest last week. But nowhere have we seen the anti-war protests described by the panelists. Do we need a draft, or what?


3 Responses to “Technology/Apathy”

  1. i like zee post. i do, of course, have a comment.

    a piece i read by my favorite man david graeber talked about the problem with the anti-globalization movement which primarily focuses on imf/world bank issues. he was very much against the title, not the movement, as he sees globalization as a way to increase personal ties and connections. one of the points he makes is that through technology, activist groups have been able to make global ties and support, raising numbers and awareness.

    i think of katrina or the tsunami and the money raised. it would be interesting to see how much money was raised through the internet…and why the interent? because with the simple click of a button, $20 is transfered. true, that’s impersonal and disconnected, but…is that $20 bad because of it?

    we once had a discussion about the possiblitites of technology in an academic setting. imagine taking a class about india and being able to hook up with indian students via interent/tech/conference callish ordeal and being able to discuss what was taught. can you imagine the debates? it would sort of be de-othering the subject of your study.

    i’m aware of the idealism. but, is it really technology that is making our generation apathetic, or is it the manner in which we use it? can we change that? can we push technology further in the way of a tool for society, rather than mere entertainment (such is the way tv has gone…)?

    or the reverse. can we rid ourselves of technology? and if so, how far back to do we go…no more phones, no more electricity?

    i find a hint of defeatism by blaming tech for apathy. especially coming from that generation; they may in some ways be our idols and such but do remember that part of their rebellion came as a reaction to their parent’s generation. while they provide priceless advice in some sense, we should not be fixed in having to follow their revolution. it didn’t work, remember? look where society STILL stands. their parents were not advocates of their lifestyles…but that didn’t stop them. are we to accept their criticism or embrace the newness that the future holds?

    we are the future. but we are also now.

  2. 3 Anonymous

    yes. a double edged sword.

    technology can be a wonderful tool and simultaneously the death of us.
    good to note that it is not technology that is so dehumanizing, it is our use of it. ..OUR self-control, or lack-thereof. the problem lies in the fact that such overwhelming uses (/dependency) of technology are the social norm. so how do we escape it?
    if the social norm begins with advertising, we can try our best to ignore the marketing schemes and remain content with our fold-up road map. at least that’s how it starts off (until something becomes so common that even those who do their best to defy it are faced with the “WHAT you don’t have a CELLPHONE?” .. as well as the disruption of their everyday peace in places like the supermarket, the bus, the office, the highway, class, (does it stop?).. when the majority of people are using poor cellphone etiquette [which is getting more embarrassing by the day]…) … society’s use of technology begins to encroach on everyone’s environment. sigh. so it is a balance. a balance that not only we have to work out ourselves (i.e. minimizing our personal dependence on technology), but also a balance for society. the latter is the stumper.

    in the meantime, i suggest turning off your computer & cellphone more often. it feels amazing.

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